MSU Sugarbeet Educator & Sugarbeet Advancement Coordinator Steve Poindexter Has Been a Key Player in Michigan’s Production Progress in Past Two Decades
As the tonnage graph on page 6 clearly shows, the years since 1997- 98 have brought a dramatic upward trend in Michigan sugarbeet yields. In 1995 the state’s beet crop averaged just 15.5 tons per acre; by the mid-2000s, it was in the 22- to 24-ton range. In 2014 Michigan’s sugarbeet growers set a record at 29.63 tons — and this past harvest, they raced right past that mark with an average yield of 31.6 tons per acre and 17.9% sugar.
Life is often about timing — and Steve Poindexter jokingly point outs that his arrival on the beet scene “just happened” to coincide with the beginning of this turnaround in Michigan sugarbeet productivity. Still, despite the tongue-in-cheek nature of that quip, there’s no doubt Poindexter has played an important role in the big strides made by the Michigan sugarbeet sector over the past two decades. In his position as senior extension educator for Michigan State University and coordinator of the Michigan Sugarbeet Advancement initiative, he has been intimately involved in the research and extension efforts that have constituted an integral part of the recent decades’ success story for the state’s sugarbeet industry.
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Rick Gerstenberger readily affirms that statement. Gerstenberger, who farms near Snover, is chairman of the Michigan Sugar Company Board of Directors. Referring to the sagging-yield era of the early and mid-1990s, he points out that “grower interest was fading, and growers and the company wanted to solve the yield issue.” That led to discussions about Michigan State University becoming more involved in beet research and extension — which, in turn, ultimately led to Poindexter’s assignment as extension sugarbeet specialist. “Michigan Sugar Company was already doing variety screening for characteristics like sugar and disease traits in small replicated plots,” Gerstenberger notes. “But the company was not doing testing on larger-plot field simulation-type trials.”
Michigan Sugarbeet Advancement (SBA), a multi-entity research/education initiative, was formed in the winter of 1996/97 to address the matter. Its work since then has paid big dividends. “Sugarbeet Advancement’s on farm replicated strip trials have really helped sort the varieties and allowed the best varieties in actual field conditions to ‘rise to the top,’ ” Gerstenberger states. “SBA has tested many things over the years — one of the first being primed seed. Steve’s work helped show growers what an advantage it would have for their operations.”
More recently, the Michigan beet sector also established REACh -- which stands for Research & Education Advisory Council. “The biggest issue for us was coordination of all the sources of information available to growers,” Gerstenberger recalls in explaining the purpose for REACh. Discussions with Poindexter and others led to the formation of REACh, which now serves as the primary research reporting arm in Michigan for sugarbeets. “This model has been reviewed and looked at for other commodities at the university level and has been very successful,” Gerstenberger notes.
“Steve is a dedicated team player, working closely with MSC research staff, looking for answers to growers’ issues,” MSC’s board chairman continues. “He has been a leader and well-respected communicator in the industry for almost 20 years. His attention to detail and concern for the industry makes him a great asset for growers in Michigan.”
While he appreciates such kudos, Poindexter knows full well that the progress made by the Michigan sugarbeet industry over the past two decades is due to the efforts of many individuals representing several entities: sugar company researchers and agriculturists, university and USDA researchers and educators, seed companies and other agribusinesses — and, of course, growers.
Poindexter has been employed by the Michigan State University Extension Service his entire career. While still an MSU student, he already knew Extension was the route he wanted to travel — and he has been with the Saginaw County office of MSU Extension since graduating from the university. “From 1980 to 1997, I was a general extension agent for all crops,” he recalls. “At one time I was kind of the ‘soybean expert’ in the area; then worked trying to revitalize the wheat industry.”
That changed in 1997. As reported in the February 1998 issue of The Sugarbeet Grower, “The seeds of what would become the Sugarbeet Advancement Initiative were sown shortly after the ’96 harvest, when a few growers and company ag men sat down to evaluate the situation and what might be done about it. The first in a series of larger meetings involving growers, sugar company leaders, Michigan State University representatives and agribusiness personnel was held in early winter.”
There were two sugar processors, both stock companies, in the state at that time: Michigan Sugar Company and Monitor Sugar Company. And there were two grower groups: the Great Lakes Sugar Beet Growers Association (producing for Michigan Sugar) and the Monitor Sugarbeet Growers. “We knew the sugar companies . . . had a breakeven point on tonnage or acreage; and if we dropped below that, they would shut down,” noted John Spero, a Saginaw area grower and first chairman of Michigan Sugarbeet Advancement in that 1998 article. “And if they shut down, they probably would never open again.”
Sugarbeet Advancement became the first ever industry-wide coordinated initiative for the Michigan beet sector and conducted its first field-scale trials in 1997. Poindexter joined SBA that summer, with his position jointly funded by MSU and SBA. “I’m a district sugarbeet extension agent; but I’m working with and for the efforts of the Sugarbeet Advancement Initiative,” he explained at the time.
Looking back nearly 20 years later, Poindexter recalls that the SBA committee, at its onset, came up with about two dozen “issues” that were impacting Michigan’s beet yields, issues that needed to be addressed. “The number one thing was: growers could not get consistent emergence,” he says. “And if you start out with just half a stand, you’ve already limited your yield prospects.” Diseases (especially Rhizoctonia) were another primary problem, as was sugarbeet cyst nematode. Soil-related concerns, like compaction and drainage, also made the list.
Today, of course, there is just one sugar processor in Michigan — and the company is owned by the growers. The atmosphere was quite different in the mid-1990s, and Poindexter has memories of sometimes feeling like a referee. “The companies would say, ‘You need to tell the growers to do that,’ and the growers would say, ‘You need to tell the companies that they are focused on their own best interest, not ours.’ Trying to work in the middle of that was really a struggle at times,” he recalls, “and probably was one reason why [SBA] was successful — because I wasn’t nuzzled up to the company, I wasn’t nuzzled up with the growers. I was just trying to do what was right and make things work.
“That’s where the university comes in: being the ‘in between.’”
The 23-member Sugarbeet Advancement governing committee is comprised of growers, Michigan Sugar Company agronomy employees, USDA and university researchers, and industry representatives. The committee can, with Michigan Sugar board approval, assess growers up to five cents a ton to fund SBA research. (Assessment dollars also fund part of SBA staff salaries, operations and equipment purchases or leases.) Each year, SBA conducts about 25 field trials through harvest. “I estimate since we have started the program in 1997, we’ve been in more than 300 fields, planting and harvesting with growers,” Poindexter says.
While he’s obviously involved in research, Poindexter views himself as primarily an educator. “You can have the best dang research there is; but if you can’t transform that to the growers and get them to accept it, it doesn’t make a difference,” he says. “I think that’s one of the strong points we’ve been able to accomplish. Whether it’s Michigan Sugar’s research, our own research or whomever, we have a good educational component now — and growers believe us, for the most part.
“No grower is going to do everything [we suggest]; it’s a management decision on their part. But what’s surprising to me is how quickly growers have taken some of what we’ve done and implemented it on their farms.”
Poindexter ticks off several examples of how things have changed — for the better — since the mid-1990s:
• “Progress in stand establishment has been huge. Priming was a godsend to getting emergence, because in Michigan it could take up to three weeks to get beets out of the ground (due to slow-warming soils). During that time, you’re going to get a pounding rain, you’re going to have crusting, and you’re not going to achieve a very good stand. I remember when priming first came on board. We were doing some trials with it and were finding emergence seven days faster. It was amazing.”
• “The second thing that happened was growers changed the way they tilled their soil. Many times, they were working the field twice, and then planting. Well, when you’re planting only an inch deep, it dries out. Now they’re working it very shallow — or, in many cases, working it only in the fall and not in the spring, and then planting into a stale seedbed.”
• A generation ago, “there were some growers who wouldn’t plant a sugarbeet until April 15. I don’t care if the ground was ready three weeks ahead of that date, they weren’t going to plant. But rarely do we get beets that freeze off in Michigan. It does happen occasionally, but growers have figured out that if it’s April and the ground is ready, you go. You don’t wait two weeks. That was a major change.”
• “When I first started, the agronomist at the sugar company was saying ‘a 100% stand is 100 beets per 100 feet of row.’ OK, but what if you have emergence problems — which we did — or early season disease problems, and end up with only 50 beets per 100 feet? Right now, our average stands are 200 beets per 100 feet of row.” Simply increasing the recommended planting rate was the first step — with the availability of pelleted seed being critical to accurate seed placement.
• “Rhizoctonia was by far the biggest disease problem we had. When the sugar companies were separate from the growers, they were approving very high sugar varieties, but often with poor disease tolerance — particularly to Rhizoc.” Today, along with having improved varieties, Sugarbeet Advancement’s trials with fungicide treatments (Quadris in-furrow followed by foliar applications) have made a huge difference. “We have darned near 100% of our growers doing something on Rhizoctonia control that they never did before. Some of it is a ‘pain in the butt;’ but they know it’s going to make them money, so they do it.”
While the testing parameters can be more tightly controlled in smallscale research plots, Poindexter strongly believes in the value of the field-scale trials that Sugarbeet Advancement has conducted since its inception. “Michigan Sugar Company has a very aggressive research program,” he says. “But there are some major differences (from SBA trials). “Number one, they have to approve the varieties through their standards, in their small trials. We complement that, since a lot of growers also want to see those varieties in large trials, under grower management conditions. Occasionally we’ve had certain varieties that didn’t do so well ‘out in the real world.’ Though genetically they’ve had the potential, they’re a ‘race horse.’ And sometimes ‘the track is muddy.’ ”
Sugarbeet Advancement conducts what Poindexter refers to as “secondtier” testing. “For example, we can’t work on chemicals that are unapproved because we can’t spray 40 acres and then destroy those beets — whereas they (Michigan Sugar researchers) can in their small plots. But once Michigan Sugar says, ‘This is working in small trials,’ we can put [the product] in big strip trials, with the growers doing it themselves. So again, it’s complementary to what the sugar company researchers are doing.”
As to key challenges in the coming years, Poindexter says that like other sugarbeet regions, the Michigan sector must address herbicide resistance management. But at least equally as pressing for his state is fungicide resistance. “Strobilurins are the main issue right now,” he says, “but we’re also hugely concerned with the triazoles.” Best management practices will be vital, he stresses — especially since no new fungicides are poised to come into the beet market in the near future.
Whatever the current challenges or new ones that may arise for Michigan’s sugarbeet community, Poindexter believes the unified approach that exists today will be critical to their successful management. “The Michigan sugar group is an excellent partnership between the university, industry and growers,” he affirms, “and combining our strengths has, I think, worked out very well. We’re all pulling in the same direction, so there’s little confusion as to what we’re telling growers, as to the direction we’re heading.”
And there’s no doubt that Steve Poindexter treasures those grower relationships on a personal level as well. “I don’t think there’s a nicer group of people than growers — especially sugarbeet growers,” he states. “This is a unique crop — particularly with the coop aspect. They have ‘skin in the game.’
“I’ve found over the years if you can do something to help their family, like 4-H, they really like that. And if you can help them with their business, they’re really appreciative. That’s probably the biggest satisfaction in my work. I don’t know of any growers who I don’t like!” — Don Lilleboe
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Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower